The Philadelphia Phillies consensus all-time greatest player began his big league career in September of 1972.
In the first round of the 1971 MLB Draft, at 6th overall, the Phillies selected a hard throwing right hander out of Lompoc High School in California named Roy Thomas. He would pitch in 182 games over parts of eight big league seasons spread across the next 16 years, but never with the Phillies.
But in the second round of that same draft, the club struck gold with a shortstop out of the University of Ohio by the name of Michael Jack Schmidt. Mike Schmidt had been a good high school baseball and basketball player, but never stood out much through his early collegiate career in Athens.
Eve M.B. Hermann at Encyclopedia.com tells of Schmidt’s metamorphosis from simply a good athlete into a serious baseball player:
“During the summer before his sophomore year of college, Schmidt took a more serious approach to the game. He played for the Dayton Summer League team after approaching the coach several times. His persistence paid off, and coach Ted Mills brought him in at shortstop. His fielding and hitting impressed Mills so much that he called the Ohio University baseball coach, Bob Wren, and told him about it. He also wrote the California Angels about Schmidt’s abilities.“
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Schmidt would become a two-time All-American as a shortstop at Ohio, and helped lead the Bobcats to a fourth place finish at the 1970 College World Series. Not only his increased focus and determination, but also his growing power and overall skills came to the attention of big league scouts, and the Phillies thus made him their 2nd round 1971 choice.
After signing his first professional contract, Schmidt appeared in 74 games with AA Reading in the 1971 season, almost exclusively at his collegiate position of shortstop.
The Phillies already had a top-flight defensive whiz at the shortstop position in Larry Bowa, so in 1972 he was promoted to AAA Eugene and given time at both 2nd and 3rd base.
It was at Eugene where he broke out offensively, smashing 26 homers, driving in 91 runs, and scoring 80 runs in 531 plate appearances. He also hit for a .291/.409/.550 slash line, while fielding well at both positions. By the end of that summer of 1972, Schmidt was clearly ready at age 22 for a taste of the big leagues.
In 1972, the Phillies ownership fired longtime GM John Quinn on June 3rd, replacing him with organizational man Paul Owens. From late June through early July of that season, the Phils enjoyed one of their longest-ever home stands, a 17-games in 15 days stretch that included three doubleheaders.
They were 14 games into that homestand having gone just 3-11, and had slipped to 26-50 overall, when Owens decided that enough was enough under manager Frank Lucchesi. He fired the skipper, and went down to field level himself to take over as the manager, hoping to learn more first-hand about the players in order to make important decisions going forward.
One decision that Owens made was to promote Schmidt in September. On September 12th, 1972 in a game at Veteran’s Stadium against the New York Mets, there were only a miniscule 5,057 fans in the stands that night, with no idea they would be witnessing franchise and baseball history.
The Mets had won the World Series just three years earlier, and would win another NL pennant a year later. But on that mild, mid-September evening the New Yorkers were in third place under manager Yogi Berra, 16 games out of first. The Phils were in dead last in the NL East, 39 games back. The game would mean nothing in the standings.
Owens starting lineup went like this: leading off was shortstop Craig Robinson, followed by 2nd baseman Denny Doyle. Right fielder Tommy Hutton hit 3rd, while center fielder Willie Montanez was the cleanup hitter. Young 21-year old slugger Greg Luzinski was in left field batting 5th, 1st baseman Joe Lis hit 6th, and the 3rd baseman, Don Money was batting 7th.
Hitting 8th in the lineup was a 24-year old catcher named Bob Boone, who would be making just his 3rd big league appearance, and his first-ever start. The rookie backstop would be handling a 25-year old lefty by the name of Ken Reynolds, who would ultimately take the loss that day, dropping his woeful record to 2-13.
Thanks largely to an error by Money, the Mets scored a pair of unearned runs in the top of the 1st inning to take an early 2-0 lead. Owens, tired of the sloppy play, decided to make a move. When the Mets came to bat in the top of the 2nd, the manager had replaced Money with the youngster Schmidt at 3rd base.
Schmidt stepped on to the Astroturf at The Vet in an official Major League Baseball game that inning for the first time. He would not handle a ball until there were two outs in the top of the 6th, when Mets’ 1st baseman Jim Beauchamp sent a grounder his way. Schmidt threw him out cleanly. It would be the only ball he would handle until there were two outs in the top of the 9th, when again Beauchamp would ground out.
In the bottom of the 3rd, Schmidt stepped into the batter’s box for the first time. Facing 28-year old Mets’ 5-year veteran Jim McAndrew, he struck out swinging.
With two outs in the bottom of the 5th, Schmidt came to the plate against McAndrew once again. This time the young Phillies 3rd sacker would win the battle, pulling a clean ground single between the shortstop-3rd base hole and into left field for his first big league hit.
Schmidt next came to the plate in the bottom of the 7th, with the Phillies down by 4-1 at that point. Again, McAndrew struck him out swinging.
In the bottom of the 9th, the Phillies made a last-ditch run at the Mets. Montanez doubled with one out, and Luzinski followed by singling him home to make it a 4-2 game. When Lis drew a walk to put the tying runs on base, it set off a series of managerial moves on both sides. For his part, Owens brought in Terry Harmon to run for Lis.
On the Mets side of things, even though Schmidt would now be coming to the plate, Berra would finally remove McAndrew, replacing him with Danny Frisella in a double-switch, as Ed Kranepool replaced Beauchamp.
Schmidt battled Frisella for a walk, loading the bases with Phillies. He would be replaced by Owens with a pinch-runner, the regular starting shortstop, Larry Bowa.
That move meant that for the first time, a quartet of homegrown players who would become stars over the course of the 1970’s, and who would help the team win its first World Series in 1980: Schmidt, Bowa, Luzinski, and Boone, would appear in the same boxscore.
Boone stepped in with the bags loaded, and delivered an infield single to 3rd, scoring Luzinski with a run that cut the Phillies’ deficit to 4-3. With the bases loaded and one out, Owens brought in 33-year old veteran Deron Johnson to pinch-hit for reliever Dick Selma. Johnson killed the rally, grounding into a 6-4-3 double play.
Though the Phillies lost by that final of 4-3, a new era was beginning at Veteran’s Stadium. It was the first game for Schmidt, the first for that team’s own version of a ‘Core Four’ of position players to appear in the same game.
The very next day, Schmidt would get his first start, going 0-4. In his 3rd game, on September 16th at The Vet against the Montreal Expos and pitcher Balor Moore, Schmidt crushed a 3-run homer in the bottom of the 7th inning. It was his first of 548 career home runs, and a glorious Hall of Fame career had begun.